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Book Review: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich: Penguin Classics, 2017-

Paper No. 6568 .  Dated 19-July-2019

By Prof. Charles Ponnuthurai  Sarvan:

Alexievich, born 1948, is an internationally recognised writer; winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015.   She’s an ‘oral historian’, one who records the verbal testimony of those who participated in or were directly affected by historical events.

Unwomanly Face consists of the accounts, of varying length, of women who had fought, either in the Soviet army or as partisans, in World War 11, that is, forty years earlier to the first publication of this book in 1985. That the author herself was female, no doubt encouraged the participants to testify. One of the merits of her work is that Alexievich abnegates herself, and presents testimony as told to her: her own voice is kept to a minimum. That Penguin Books includes Unwomanly Face in their selection of “classic” works is fully justified.

Women at War:

This book is about women in war as told by women but we must also bear in mind the children left without parents; children physically injured and or psychologically damaged. Altering words from a Russian novel, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, no “-ism” is worth the tears of even a single child. Alexievicvh’s Last Witnesses covers this ground but I haven’t read it as yet. A few final words to this introduction: Germans are often referred to not by the  proper noun but by the descriptor “fascist”. The struggle was as much between Germans and Russians as it was between Fascism and Communism. (The former is again raising its ugly head again in various parts of the world.)

Female stereotypes are the construct of men; are conflicting and contradictory. One stereotype projects women as weak (therefore to be guided and controlled by men) and, what is worse, leading men into temptation, sin and damnation: see the Christian tradition with Eve succumbing to temptation and in turn ‘corrupting’ Adam. (In Islam Adam and Eve are both tempted and both succumb.) The opposite stereotype associates women with motherhood (see the important role the Virgin Mary plays in Roman Catholicism), with care, tenderness and self-sacrifice. While some people refer to their country as their “fatherland” others, including Russians, speak of it as their “motherland”. The latter seems to me to carry a greater emotional charge: the former evokes pride but the latter intense and abiding love.  

Scattered throughout the book are references to “Mama”. However old and tired Mama was, to them she remains beautiful. When the heavy artillery of the fascists commences firing, one whispers: “Mama, dear Mama. Dear mama” (page 119). When “the Motherland was in danger” (page 241), it was impossible to think of anything private and personal. “I was always proud that I had been at the front, defending the Motherland” (page 246). A dying soldier clings on to life (“contrary to all the laws of medicine”, according to a doctor present) so that her Mama’s letter could be read out to her. The letter begins: “My dear, my beloved little daughter.” A mother over eighty years old continues to search for her missing child. “How many years had she been looking for him? And she’ll go on looking till her last hour” (page 97).

In Sri Lanka too, women are looking for their loved ones who have disappeared; more precisely and truthfully; disregarding the rules of traditional grammar and using the passive voice, those who have been (forcibly) disappeared. But most of these Tamil women are poor and powerless, and the powers-that-be are indifferent to, if not contemptuous of, their most grievous sorrow. “A voice was heard…lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children and would not be comforted because they are not” (The Old Testament, Jeremiah 31:15).

Women are associated not with the taking of life but with bringing it into existence, and the taking care of it thereafter: as Lady Macduff says in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, even “the most diminutive of birds”, will fight for her young ones against the owl (Act 4, Scene 2). Still Counting the Dead by Frances Harrison is a book which, recording the testimony of a few Tamils who directly experienced the last days of the war (a medical doctor, a Christian nun, a shopkeeper etc.) bears some similarity to Unwomanly Face. I quote verbatim from page 42: "One day Lokesan was in the hospital, counting the dead and injured, when he saw a mother, badly injured in the neck and chest but still conscious and screaming for her baby. An older lady - probably the grandmother - brought a child of about six months old, who was slightly injured. The mother took the baby, kissed it gently on the forehead, and offered her breast. She probably hadn't eaten herself for days but knew her child must feed if it was to have any chance of survival in a world where milk powder was more valuable than gold. After a while, with the baby still drinking from her breast, Lokesan noticed the woman was dead. That feed was the mother's parting gift to her child. She knew she was dying and that was why she'd been shouting so urgently for her baby" (End of quote).

Changing geography and culture, I quote from an African novel, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: “But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother's hut. […] when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you […] And that is why we say that mother is supreme.” In Sri Lanka, isn’t the commonest involuntary exclamation in times of great surprise or tiredness, fear or sorrow “Amme” (in Sinhala) or “Amma” (in Tamil)?

Most books about wars have been written by men and are about the doings of men. The word “History” is made up of “His” + “story”: the story of men, told by men. In this respect, Unwomanly Face is unusual, and welcome also because it presents English-language readers with the Russian perspectives of the war. The Soviet Union paid the highest price in terms of the loss of human lives, estimated at between 8 to 11 million lives, while Germany lost 4 to 5 million. (Another source estimates Soviet casualties at about 13 million soldiers plus 14 million civilians, making a rough total of 27 million. German losses, soldiers and civilians combined, are thought to be around 6, 36 million.) The siege of Leningrad lasted 872 days and alone cost the lives of 1.5 million Russian soldiers and civilians. (Statistics are disputed but it’s claimed that Stalin and his regime are responsible for the death of about 15 million within the Soviet Union. If so, and going by the first estimate given above, Stalin killed more in the Soviet Union than Hitler and the Nazis.) Unlike some other female fighters (for example, female Tamil-Tigers) these female fighters of the Soviet Union were victorious.

Yet in victory there’s also sadness: as the Duke of Wellington commented when he saw the carnage after the Battle of Waterloo, the next saddest thing to losing a war is winning it. “To see beauty in victory is to rejoice in the killing of others” (Art of War, Sun-tzu, BCE 380-316). Sri Lanka’s Commodore Ajith Boyagoda sadly but wisely reflects that in war there are no winners but only losers: A Long Watch, page 218. Returning to Unwomanly Face, even when the women sing, their songs are like weeping (page X11). Some no longer cry because to weep, one needs some strength (page 41). They are ordinary women who lived through most extraordinary times. Alexievich in telling the truth meets (like Commodore Boyagoda) hostility and rejection: This is a lie, a slander against our soldiers and our people. We don’t need your history (page XXXV). As the author observes, courage in war and courage in thinking are entirely different (italics added by me).

In 1937, Stalin conducted one of his major “purges” during which secret trials of Red Army commanders were carried out, decimating the best commanders, the military elite. On 23 August 1939, he signed the pact with Hitler, and thereafter Stalin ignored increasing military intelligence, both from within and outside the Soviet Union, that Hitler was preparing for war. Operation Barbarossa, launched on 22 June 1941, found the Soviet Union totally unprepared. Churchill said that after hearing the news, he’d slept the sleep of one who had been saved: Hitler, he knew, had started down that road which would lead to certain defeat.

It was one of Hitler’s major and near-irredeemable mistakes. A man who embodies within himself both total political and total military power bears near-total responsibility, for example, Napoleon, Hitler and Prabhakaran. Stalin had left the Soviet Union unprepared and inept: “our air force was destroyed on the ground, our tanks burned like matchboxes. The rifles were old” (page 74). Soldiers were badly equipped and supplied. They were inadequately clothed and there was disregard by those in higher ranks and positions at the number of wounded and killed: Moths fly into the fire, all night long, disappearing into this big fire. “Others come flying after them” (Unwomanly Face, page 213). Cossack cavalry charged, “capes flying, sabers bared, horses snorting” (page 146). But they charged tanks and German soldiers armed not with swords but “with their submachine guns at the ready”. (During the Crimean War of 1853-56, British light cavalry, armed with swords and spears, charged well-placed Russian cannon. Tennyson’s poem celebrating their courage, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, includes the following lines: “Someone had blundered. / Theirs not to make reply / Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die.”) 1941 was a humiliating debacle for the Soviet Union.

In Sri Lanka, some wonder why it took the state three decades to defeat an enemy against whom it had overwhelming numerical superiority; an enemy that did not possess, unlike the government, a single jet fighter or helicopter. But in all wars, the brightness of final victory eclipses ineptitude and corruption at the higher level, not to mention cowardice and desertion at the lower.

As I have written elsewhere, war is brutal and brutalising; it’s a “meat grinder” (page 135). “In war your soul ages. After the war, I was never young” again (page 139). The dead lie on the fields, and birds tear out their eyes and peck their faces (page 125). Anything can burn – even blood (page 127)! The fascists set a village on fire: “I remember how the people screamed. The cows screamed. The chickens screamed. It seemed to me they were all screaming with human voices” (p. 258). A nurse captured by the fascists has her eyes “put out” and her breasts cut off before she was killed (p. 123). Similar acts of hatred and cruelty have been reported from other ‘theatres of war’:  “They were kicking and stepping on the dead bodies […] One girl had a stick sticking into the air from her vagina. One of the soldiers yanked it out and rammed it into her vagina again” (‘A Still-Unfinished War: Sri Lanka’s Survivors of Torture and Sexual Violence’, International Truth & Justice Project, London, July 2015, p. 49.)

Or turning to the Americans in Vietnam, and specifically to the My Lai massacre of 1968, one reads: “They burnt down every hut. They raped women and girls and then killed them. They stabbed some women in the vagina and disembowelled others… Pregnant women had their stomach slashed open and were left to die. There were gang rapes… There were mass executions. Dozens of people at a time, including old men, women and children”: quoted by Sam Harris in his The End of Faith, Chapter 4. Unwomanly Face records that all the children of a mother are short and she, left only with her nursing baby, is ordered by the fascist: “Toss him up, I’m going to shoot him” (p. 258). But in a final act of maternal love and defiance, the mother kills the baby herself. A little boy is lashed to a bicycle and forced to run after it. Then he’s forced to kneel on all fours like a dog, to fetch a stick with his teeth like a dog – all for amusement and entertainment of a fascist soldier

The accounts are distressing but not entirely one-sided. A blind eye was turned by government and people to the looting indulged in by Soviet soldiers and junior officers; to rape or gang-rape. “I remember a German woman who had been raped. She was lying naked, with a grenade stuck between her legs” (page 307). Similar incidents have been reported from Sri Lanka, variously extolled as the ‘Paradise Isle’ and ‘the Dhammadeepa’ that is, the Island of the Buddha’s (sublimely compassionate) teaching: much loud and heated, ritualised and fervent protestation; little practice.

To quote from Durkheim’s classic study, On Suicide (1897), rather than religion conditioning social ideas and influencing social behaviour, it’s the social environment that creates religious ideas: see the difference between religious doctrine and teaching on the one hand, and public and political religious conduct on the other.  The motivation for such barbaric conduct is both intense hatred (the product of ‘racism’ and, to a lesser degree, misogyny) and an attempt to obliterate evidence.

Yet war also produces camaraderie, courage and self-sacrifice. (For self-sacrifice, see Durkheim’s discussion of ‘voluntary altruistic suicide’, op. cit. The women fighters had a sense that there was something more to life than mere existence (page 72). They were prepared to die so that others might live, and live free (page 85). Or, as one combatant expressed it, I came here to kill, to kill war (page 196). A dying soldier offers water to the nurse come to render first-aid: “Drink some water [yourself], dear nurse” (page 59). A wounded soldier draws the attention of the nurse to one in greater need. But that man is a fascist: “They were no longer enemies” but two wounded human beings lying next to each other (page 127).

I am reminded of a poem by Thomas Hardy’s (1840-1928) titled ‘The man he killed’. The poet adopts the persona of a soldier who has just shot someone and is now conducting an interior inquiry and dialogue. Why did I kill him? I killed him because he was my foe; the enemy. That’s reason and justification enough, isn’t it? But perhaps that man had joined the army because, like me, he was unemployed, “out of work”. War is strange, concludes the persona: you kill a man whom, in peace time, you’d buy a drink or lend a coin.

But this book has mainly to do with the experience and perspective of Soviet women, women who brought sincerity and total commitment; incredible courage and self-sacrifice. A partisan group, about thirty in number, men and women, is betrayed; they take to a swamp which the fascists won’t enter and stay up to their necks in water. A woman, a radio-operator; has her new-born baby with her. The baby cries out of hunger but the mother hasn’t eaten for days and has no milk. Fascist forces with dogs are nearby: if the baby’s cries are heard, they’ll be all dead. The decision is up to the mother: I leave the rest to the reader. A nurse voluntarily stays behind with the wounded, and is burnt alive with them (page 86). Then there’s the pain of abandoning the wounded who silently beg with their eyes: “Brothers! Dear sisters! Don’t leave us to the Germans. Finish us off” (page 124).

The women made greater efforts than the men (page 198). I recall reading somewhere a female Tamil Tiger saying that female cadres did everything that the men were doing. What’s more, they tried to do better in order to show they were as capable as the men. (Somewhat similarly, it used to be said that people of colour have to be twice as good in order to get half as far.) Women faced certain, specific, biological challenges. Women’s underwear appeared only two years after the war started, and for the first time I wished I had been born a male (page 200). A woman marches with men and, it being summer, she’s wearing a dress. Suddenly, she has her“woman’s thing” (page XX1X). Out on a mission, in a boat, men can urinate overboard but what of women? I jumped overboard and swam around (page 93)

In all that chaos and carnage, some women observe and respond to the perennial and varied beauty of nature.  One volunterrs for night duty just to be able to hear the birds at dawn.  And I am reminded of Malaravan killed in action at the age of twenty ( see Sarvan paper no.  5554 of SAAG). 

The “cess” of war; the sacrifice made and the suffering endured, but what of the peace that ensues? As I have mentioned elsewhere, peace is of two kinds, negative and positive, and the one must not be confused with or passed off as the other. Negative peace is the absence of overt conflict; positive peace is not merely absence but actual presence, the presence of a good degree of security and harmony, in turn the products of justice – bearing in mind that true justice is indivisible.  “We all imagined that after the war, after such oceans of tears, there would be a wonderful life. Beautiful” (page 157). But these women had spent several years fighting for their motherland and, as a result, they had little of formal education or training. In turn, it meant that employment was difficult. The war is over for many; has become history and they have, to use that glib phrase, “moved on” but to these women, the war is very much in the present, and always with them,          

War is brutal and some of that brutality can carry over into post-war times. Society grows callous; indifferent to a high degree of violence.  I quote from Unwomanly Face, page xxxix. “I’m riding on a bus after work; suddenly there’s shouting: ‘Stop thief! Stop thief! My purse…’ The bus stops. A crowd forms at once. A young officer takes a boy outside, puts his arm on his knee and – whack! –  breaks it in two. Jumps back on the bus. And we go on…  Are [we] still human?”

In the throes of a dire, desperate, struggle women are co-opted but, once the danger is passed; once the war is over, they are ushered back into their traditional service roles. As often, significance is hidden in the minor and casual. For example, Alexievich visits a house to interview a former female fighter but her husband sends her to the kitchen to prepare something for their guest while he takes over the conversation. Conservative Tamil society has reasserted itself, and Tamil Tiger women who enjoyed as much scope as the men; who did as well, if not better than their male counterparts, are now consigned to play traditional roles. A former female Tamil Tiger fighter cannot even climb onto a low wall to pluck a ripe fruit because that would be un-ladylike: see ‘Haunted by her Yesterdays’ on the Internet at:

During the war, women volunteers were admired, honoured and loved but now these women have to fight an unseen war, one of suspicion and slander. “How did the Motherland meet us? It was only forty years ago, but my cheeks still burn.”  What were you up to at the front with all those men? “We know what you did there! You lured our men…” One is reminded of ‘Ball of Fat’ (‘Boule de Suif’), perhaps the most famous of Guy de Maupassant’s short stories, and its exposure of selfishness and society’s hypocrisy. Truly, as one former fighter says, happiness is over the mountains but grief is just over your shoulder. (Perhaps, this is a Russian saying?) Or as Achebe expresses it, when sorrow knocks at your door and you say there’s no seat for him in your hut, he tells you not to worry because he has brought along his own stool. Given state neglect and social attitudes, the women do not speak openly about these matters. An exception is a woman whose children, all five of them, were killed. Now, being insane, she talks openly.

To read Unwomanly Face as being about the experience of some Soviet Union female combatants or to make comparisons only with Sri Lanka would be a limitation and, therefore, a loss. We study particulars in order to understand wider phenomena, transcending place and time. I suggest: All wars are defeats. In other words, war is the result of our failure, humanity’s failure, to co-exist without recourse to large-scale violence, destruction and death. (The Buddha's central doctrine is of Avijja: ignorance.)

Wars are begun by men, but women pay an equal, if not greater, price: see Achebe’s short story, ‘Girls at War’ where a collapse of morale following defeat is followed by a collapse in morals. In other words, ‘morale’ and ‘morals’ are related terms. And it’s not only women; not only human beings but “the earth, the birds, the trees. All that lives on earth with us” (page X1V). War is ubiquitous, universal and as old as human history. It is “ordinary and indiscriminate” (page 67) but at the same time, for combatants, for family and those affected, war is intensely personal and life-changing. The Nobel Committee in making the award to Alexievich stated, inter alia, that her writing was “a monument to suffering and courage”. We must not allow statistics, numbers and figures, to depersonalise and conceal what, at root, is intensely and uniquely private and personal.